If your child is getting ready to head off to college next fall, you’re probably going through a range of emotions (18 years goes by fast). One major concern: the price tag.

With the costs of college increasing every year, financial aid is a reality for many families. If you’re new to the process (or could just use a little refresher), here are four tips to know before applying for financial aid.

START EARLY

From the ins and outs of student loans to understanding how scholarships work, the world of financial aid can be complex, which is why Kalman Chany, author of “Paying for College” and founder of Campus Consultants, encourages parents to start familiarizing themselves with the process once their child enters high school. This way, when the time does come to start applying, you’ll be able to focus on the forms themselves.

“It is not in the best interest of schools to give away money, which is why it is critical that parents are extremely thorough when completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form,” Chany says. “Many families overestimate their ability to go through the process and end up losing out on aid.”

CHECK YOUR DATES

In order to boost your chances of receiving as much financial aid as possible, there are a few important dates to know. The first is when the FAFSA form becomes available. The application for the 2021 to 2022 school year opened on October 1, and while you technically have until June 30, 2022 to fill it out, some schools offer aid on a rolling basis, so you should submit the form sooner rather than later.

When filling out the FAFSA, you’ll need to provide your tax and income information. But the dates for those go back farther than you might expect. “Many parents aren’t aware that even though they might be completing a FAFSA form in the fall of their child’s senior year of high school, they will actually be submitting prior-prior year financial information,” Chany says. For the 2021 to 2022 school, this would be the information from your 2019 tax return.

KNOW YOURSELF AND YOUR SITUATION

Filling out the FAFSA is similar to filing your taxes. Some people are comfortable doing it on their own, while others prefer to have expert help. Depending on your situation, the FAFSA may be straightforward enough to complete on your own. (If you get stuck, the Federal Student Aid office offers online resources to help). But for those with complex income situations or family structures, Chany believes it can be beneficial to hire a private financial aid consultant.

Alan Carroll, who lives in New York and is self-employed, decided to hire a consultant for a handful of sessions before his daughter started college. “Some of the tax info the FAFSA requested was not easy to figure out,” he says. “I tried Googling what to do, but the information wasn’t accurate since the tax forms had changed that year. Give yourself some extra time to fill it out, and expect to go back and forth with your CPA and on the phone with the FAFSA people.”

INVOLVE YOUR CHILD

Some parents feel that applying to college is stressful enough and don’t want to add to their burden by talking about money. But because paying for college is no small feat, it can be helpful to walk through the aid process together so your child understands the full financial implications.

Doing so will likely lead to a discussion about how your child’s choice of school can play a role in their financial future. Julie Monello, who also lives in New York, had a frank discussion with her daughter about much the family would able to provide for her education. After using an EFC Calculator to assess how much financial aid they were likely to receive, the costs of different schools were put into perspective.

“One thing I found interesting and disappointing is that the net price calculators on many college websites always seemed to think we would get more money than we did from the FAFSA,” Monello says. “The FAFSA is much more detailed, so I get it, but we did get our hopes up prematurely.” Monello’s daughter ultimately decided to eliminate high-priced schools that didn’t offer merit aid because she didn’t want to be saddled with large amounts of debt after her graduation.

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